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Women and Family in Athenian Law 

K. Kapparis, edition of March 22, 2003

page 2 of 11

· The Laws of Drakon ·

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Demosthenes (Dem. 23).
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Athenian authors of the classical period imagined a mythical past where women were subject to similar restrictions in their legal standing and social roles as in their own timeframe. Greek Drama amply portrays female characters in the settings of Mycene, prehistoric Thebes, or Athens at the time of the kings. Those women resemble Athenian wives, concubines, mothers, sisters, or daughters in their roles and, despite a wide variation of temperament and degrees of conformity with established rules, obey or disobey the same social conventions as 5th or 4th century Athenian women. In reality very little is known about the legal or social position of Athenian women until the time of Drakon, the first lawgiver of Athens. It is widely agreed that Drakon provided Athens with its first set of written laws amid widespread social discontent (621 BC). His legislation should probably be seen as an attempt to curb some of the excesses of the ruling aristocracy, and firmly establish the rule of law over the will of powerful families. Much of the legislation of Drakon was superceded by later statutes, but his homicide law, which remained valid throughout the classical period and until the end of the Athenian polis, introduces very firm regulations on male conduct towards free females under the authority of another man. The law of Drakon on justified homicide permitted a man to kill another man caught with his wife, mother, sister, daughter or concubine, that is, any woman under his legal protection (Dem. 23.53). By doing so this law actually set several important legal definitions which were to remain in force for centuries.

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Aristotle (Aristot. Pol.).

First, the law of Drakon probably enshrined into the letter of the law the existing concept of what is a family. By naming the female members of a man’s household this law defined the family as a wider unit encompassing all free females and went as far as to include even slave-concubines. Slaves belonged to the family, if not as persons at least as valuable property. This widely defined entity, consisting of all the persons that lived in a household and all its assets was called oikos. The oikos was probably a very old concept, and despite some changes in its character and legal standing over time, essentially remained a constant in Greek life. Aristotle saw the city-state (polis) as a constellation of oikoi, and his remark certainly underlines the importance of the family-unit in Greek public as well as private life (Aristot. Pol. 1253b).

The second major implication of Drakon’s homicide law was the recognition of the sanctity of the family and family life. No matter how powerful or influential a person was, he still did not have the right to enter someone’s house and seduce or force the women under this man’s authority, for the law provided the most efficient deterrent: self-help. The wronged man would not need to seek justice elsewhere; he could avenge his injured honor there and then. So, it seems that from early times the Athenian state made a firm commitment to protect the family and all individuals in it. The main reason behind it probably was the fact that the state had vested interests in the continuation of the citizen stock and the upholding of traditional values, and saw the family as the custodian of these important matters.

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